The Place of the Novel in World History Courses: A "Summer Reading" Assignment based on Sophie's World: a Novel about the History of Philosophy
Teachers of World History at all levels of instruction employ novels to lend depth and perspective to their course content. Teachers of Advanced Placement World History often use novels as summer reading assignments to jump start essential skills their students will need for the rest of the academic year. This essay attempts to provide a general overview and set of student questions regarding a novel which is typical in its strengths and limitations. These materials are useful for wide application, but are specifically designed to serve new Advanced Placement World History teachers who are considering incorporating this or any novel in their class.
Sophie's World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy, by Jostein Gaarder (the current English edition published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2007 can be purchased on-line for less than five dollars) is an excellent vehicle for introducing students to the kind of creative thinking necessary for success in Advanced Placement World History. I have used this novel and accompanying questions in 9th, 10th and 12th grade history classes, and can report very positive-even enthusiastic-feedback from most students. It is widely available in paperback for fewer than ten dollars.
Jostein Gaarder taught philosophy to high school students in Norway for many years and developed Sophie's World in an attempt to increase their interest in what they sometimes told him was a "dry" subject. Gaarder succeeded brilliantly in this effort. The book became an international sensation after its original release in 1991, and is now published in over forty languages.
Gaarder uses a very clever method to "hook" his teenage readers into turning the pages and learning, sometimes without realizing it, the basic tenants of Western Philosophy. The novel's protagonist is Sophie Amundsen, a fourteen year-old girl in Norway. She finds in her mailbox two questions written on some paper: "Who are you?" and "Where does the world come from?" Those intriguing questions begin both the mystery (who wrote those questions and put them in her mailbox?) and the philosophy lessons found in the rest of the novel.
Why is this novel particularly useful in an AP History class? The short answer is that it "pushes" students into considering points of views other than their own. Developing students' abilities to find "POV" in documents or in the narrative of their history textbook is an integral part of the AP program. As does the widely used Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the reader is drawn into considering the world from different perspectives. Bingo.
I particularly like using Sophie's World as a summer reading assignment for incoming APWH students, i.e., students (usually 9th graders) who signed up for APWH for the next school year. I give them a print version because frankly, I think that this format cuts down on "sharing" of answers via the internet. You may consider developing multiple versions of the questions, including using the same questions, but in a different sequence within each set of chapter questions, to discourage rote copying of answers.
The questions I created and offered below run the gamut of Bloom's Taxonomy, as should any novel given students for analysis. Some are recall questions, while on the other end of the scale, others are designed to get the students to stop and reflect on their personal views of, well, the meaning of life. Feel free to add, alter or subtract questions to fit your students' needs.
Sophie's World Is not above criticism. It has been argued that it is not suitable for AP World History because it's Euro-or Western-centric. This concern usually comes from fellow APWH teachers. Indeed, very little is mentioned about non-Western philosophers, and then only near the beginning of the book. Further, Sophie's philosophy lessons can, at times, become a bit wordy and dry. This feedback usually comes from students who want to get on with the mystery aspect of the novel and by-pass the philosophers. Students also sometimes balk at the length of the book—over 400 pages in many editions.
However, I have found over the years I've used this book that these quite valid concerns do not detract from its overall value. Sophie's World is not a comprehensive World Philosophy course; but rather an engaging springboard that encourages young people to think in ways they had never…well, though of. As for its Western content, students in world history courses should have an opportunity to encounter Western as well as non-Western material that can rock their world. In any event, the use of only one novel rooted in any single tradition in a World History course seems short-sighted and, given the vast library of classroom-tested complimentary novels by non-Western writers, unnecessary.1
I count some of the book's occasional didacticism and length as a plus for two reasons: First, it brings home the point that AP World History is a challenging college-level course; second, when they finish the book, students frequently tell me that they have a sense of real accomplishment; that they did indeed "stretch their brains" more than they expected. What more could a high school teacher ask? I close with a final note: I do not have an answer key to the questions. You will have to read the novel yourself and, I hope, find it as engaging as I have.
Your summer assignment is the world-wide best seller Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder. Bring both your questions and answers to the first day of classes. Impress me with your complete sentences.
1. Find out how much a Norwegian crown is worth, compared to the US dollar (this is outside research and not in the text).
2. Cite 3 elements (or examples) of a mystery novel in C. 1-6.
3. In ONE sentence each, summarize each chapter 1-6.
4. Who are YOU?
5. What is the origin of philosophy?
6. What was Sophie's mother's reaction to Sophie's questions/comments after she began receiving the packages?
7. What might philosophers and small children have in common?
8. After reading about the shift from a mythological to a natural view of philosophy, what class in school did Sophie especially want to forget?
9. What is the point of seeing what each philosopher's project is?
10. Define rationalism.
11. What does this mean: "we cannot step twice into the same river."?
12. Why is Lego the most ingenious toy in the world? Do you have any history with Lego?
13. Define fatalism.
14. What was the famous inscription at Delphi ("DEL-fee")?
15. Who were the best-know Greek historians?
16. Does anything about the Hippocratic Oath stand out to you?
17. Who are you…now?
The Major's Cabin
29. What did Aristotle say were the three forms of
65. How does Sophie receive hints in this chapter that she
is not real?
74. Compare (similarities) Kant and Kierkegaard in regard to
81. How did Thomas Malthus' beliefs (what were they?)
Our Own Time
Jay Harmon teaches Advanced Placement World and European History at The Woodlands Christian Academy, The Woodlands, Texas. He is a former member of the AP World History Test Development Committee and a leader at the APWH exam reading since its inception in 2002. His website, http://www.harmonhistory.com is designed to assist new AP World and AP European History teachers. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
1 Guides for the classroom use of novels by many leading writers can be found in previous issues of World History Connected. See, for example, "The Graphic Novel in World History" 4, no. 2; 'The World in Miniature" 2, no.1; "Reading Africa 2, no.1, all searchable at
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